by carl wilson

Apparitions and Vanishments

jandek.jpg

Video killed the radio star. Now, it seems, video is feeling remorseful about it and has come back to make amends. The phenomenology of the music DVD is today's topic in Overtones, under a headline the editors apparently chose out of a deep unconscious desire to see me strung up by gangs of Zeppelin fans from the lampposts at dawn. [...]

Why concert DVDs like Zeppelin are just wrong

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON

Saturday, December 4, 2004
The Globe & Mail

A crowd of people floats in a field of white, staring out at you. By twos and threes, in overlapping waves, they fade slowly in and out of sight, clothing materializing on nude bodies, an old man evaporating into a little girl, ghostly specimens of a mute race of spectators, sole witnesses to their own disappearance.

That is Arc of Apparition, a recent DVD by Canadian musician-composer John Oswald. Ignore the soundtrack, a multilingual collage of whispers on a separate CD - the way the bodies, faces and colours emerge and dissipate is music enough, a chorale of fog and cloud. Silence seems its natural habitat.

Oswald's piece may be the only recent meeting of musician and DVD you could call quiet. The industry fanfare has crescendoed into a hallelujah chorus, as the DVD nearly reverses the decline of global music sales. The take on music videos rose 27 per cent in the first half of this year over 2003, when it was 67 per cent higher than in 2002.

I've resisted thinking about DVDs, given how gadget talk has colonized leisure: The ages of swing, rock, soul, punk and rap somehow led into the eras of the CD, Napster, iPod and ringtone. But going from audio to video is more than a gizmo transplant. It's a realignment of the senses, with eyes eclipsing ears.

If it mostly sells video, is it still the "music" industry?

The DVD boom is partly collector-mania - once they've sold everybody all the Beatles stuff over again, the bubble may pop. You don't play DVDs while doing dishes or (I hope) driving. Concert DVDs, such as last year's Zeppelin, are the most popular and most wrong - trading the outsized spectacle and audience camaraderie for close-ups of old rockers doing their "guitar face." Video reduces idols to bad actors.

Still, for those too young, old, poor or isolated to attend concerts, it's a step. At least, unlike download-and-delete MP3s, DVDs request your time and attention.

Indeed, for music lovers, this is one ginormous geekfest. Just as CDs ushered in a reissue frenzy, and downloaders treasure rare tracks, DVD dredges up a bonanza of obscure documentaries, interviews, TV spots and concert films: Want to see the infancies of post-punk units Wire, the Fall, the Birthday Party (with Nick Cave), Galaxie 500 or the Young Marble Giants? They're out there. Plus all the extras: To hear Public Enemy's Chuck D. comment on the 1972 "black Woodstock," you need the new Wattstax DVD.

Jazz and other improvised musics should benefit - audio alone seldom transmits their true jolt. Despite its self-conscious direction, for instance, the performances on a recent disc about improv giant John Zorn unleash such inventive force you could forget to breathe.

DVDs provide pop musicology: Calexico's live disc, for example, includes a short film on one of the Arizona band's major influences, mariachi. Along with the Internet, DVDs are turning every listener into an armchair historian, making music journalism almost redundant.

This summer, Toronto indie fan Randy Chase put out a "DVD zine," Electrical Tape, with ingenious featurettes on local artists such as Les Mouches, the Creeping Nobodies and Ratsicule. Smart interviews and live footage open up this next-door alternate universe in a way print could never match. Every town should have its own Electrical Tape.

Yet the medium also can transport you to music scenes far off in miles or years: Glimpse the late African legend Fela Kuti in concert; meet Cuba's Company Segundo; or encounter Atlanta's druggy drag-queen answer to Tom Waits and Patti Smith, who died of AIDS a half-decade ago, on a lovely DVD called Benjamin Smoke.

That film is part of the burgeoning subset of DVDs devoted to musical outsiders - the Residents, the staunchly anonymous San Francisco art-rock clan who pioneered music video (their 1980 Commercial Album has now mutated into a DVD); loincloth-clad street busker Thoth; never-was disco-punk prodigy Gary Wilson; the odd souls who sent their messed-up verse to a post-office box to be turned into "song-poems," as told in Off the Charts; and so on and on.

Why? Video, unlike music, is largely a narrative form, and weirdoes make better stories than stars: All successes are alike, but every failure fails in his or her own way.

As well, too many DVDs market themselves as a "backstage pass" for "all access" to, say, Jay-Z, or to see the Who "live." They hype the artist's presence, but can deliver only image, because mass-market art isn't about presence. It's about absence. The maker is missing, a gap, an other, a lover the fan surmises into existence. Recorded music is an ideal case, a disembodied sound saturated with information but holding even more back. The camera risks flattening that effect into banality. But these eccentrics contain such a surfeit of mystery that scrutiny doesn't drain it away.

The farthest of the far-out may be Jandek, a pseudonymous Texan musician, subject of the new DVD, Jandek on Corwood. Jandek is all absence: Since 1978, he's put out 37 albums of unpleasant moaning and tuneless guitars on his Corwood Industries label. No one quite knows who he is. With hen's-teeth-rare exceptions, he does not play live or do media: He is all ears and no eyes. He inspires endless speculation in his tiny band of devotees: Is he a sociopath? A millionaire?

Missouri filmmakers Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler shot 24 Jandek cultists, but never the man himself. He is represented by an unmade bed, a shrouded moon, a leaf-bare tree. He does send them a note: "You may not get all the answers you want. It's better that way."

Exactly. With his blasted-heath persona and opaque art, Jandek has made himself the blankest of screens for our fantasies, fears and desires - the ultimate rock star, so pure he is no star at all, fading in and out of sight like a dream, like the figures in John Oswald's video. As Jandek sings in The Place: "We all appear and then dissolve,/ Like an image presentation./ An annoying, glancing, piercing eye,/ And solitude that just won't quit."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 04 at 4:10 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson